A look at the transactions that the Thunder have completed so far this offseason shows a familiar theme. OKC acquired guard Patty Mills from Houston along with draft picks, then flipped him to Atlanta for Rudy Gay and more draft picks. They acquired Victor Oladipo from Miami along with draft picks. On draft night, they took on Davis Bertans’ contract from the Mavericks in exchange for moving up two spots in the draft.
Gay, Oladipo, and Bertans may never suit up for the Thunder. Their contracts were absorbed as part of a strategy that has left the Thunder with control of a mind-boggling 35 draft picks over the next seven seasons. Fifteen of those picks will come in the first round, which gives OKC extraordinary leverage to add talent. This raises an interesting question: Why? More specifically, are the Thunder just hoarding picks for the sake of hoarding picks, or is there a plan?
If we were talking about a team that had just lost sixty games or so, there would be some upside in all those picks. Or, if OKC was trapped in a spiral of mediocrity, like, say, the Bulls, you could make an argument for tearing the roster down to the ground and using those picks to do a total rebuild. But the Thunder is already four years into this rebuild, which unofficially began with the trade of Paul George in the summer of 2019.
What’s more, the Thunder actually made the play-in tournament last season, and has a young core that, with the addition of a piece or two, could make some noise very quickly. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a bona fide star. Josh Giddey just needs a decent three-point shot to be a smaller version of Luka Doncic. Luguentz Dort and Kenrich Williams would be ideal role players for a playoff team. They lead the league in players named Jalen/Jaylin Williams. And who knows what Chet Holmgren will turn out to be.
The point is that these players are pretty good already, even before you factor in Holmgren, Euro signee Vasilije Micic, or Cason Wallace, their lottery pick from the most recent draft. And, as the Thunder knows all too well, windows of contention don’t stay open forever. Gilgeous-Alexander is under contract for four more seasons, but we’ve seen plenty of evidence just in the past week or so that if a star player gets sick of losing, a contract won’t be enough to keep him around. Plus, things just happen. Guys get hurt, mistakes get made, cap space vanishes, chemistry gets ruined. It was barely more than a year ago that the Bulls were first in the East. Now we are ripping them for running the same crew back again.
So rather than continue to collect draft picks like Jay Leno collects cars, maybe the Thunder should use those picks to add a guy or two that can take them to the next level. Or take the cap space that they are using on bad contracts so they can get more picks to sign a free agent who can actually help them win now. Who would that be? We don’t know, but between now and the trade deadline we will, and the Thunder will be better positioned to make that trade than anyone. If only they don’t stay patient.
Look, of those 35 picks, probably 25-30 will never suit up for the Thunder anyway – there’s just not enough open roster spots. Most have enough protections on them that it’s likely none of them will turn into a franchise player. But they could use a handful of those picks and grab Zach LaVine or Karl-Anthony Towns when their teams decide to reboot, which might happen before Christmas. Hell, they could do both.
There’s a place for patience, and there’s merit in the idea that the best way to make a long shot pay off is to try it 35 times. But the closest anyone has come to this model is the Process in Philadelphia, which is entering Year 10 with Joel Embiid and hasn’t tasted the conference finals. If Oklahoma City is still waiting on all those draft picks to jell in Year 10, it’s doubtful they will be doing so with the same coach and general manager. Just ask Doc Rivers.